Adventures in descriptive game titles.
I'm no novice to the world of swords and sorcery. I've played the old standards, from Gauntlet to Diablo. Dungeon Explorer is a game in the same vein as these titles, but manages to be more generic than its highly generic name. When I received my copy my initial thought was, "This box smells like paint thinner." That was a pretty prophetic scent.
Back in 1989, Hudson released "Dungeon Explorer" on the TurboGrafx-16. A class-based hack-and-slash, it borrowed heavily from games like Gauntlet. The player crawled through dungeons, killed monsters, and defeated bosses. While Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts is made by Hudson, the two titles aren't really related. The new Dungeon Explorer is best described as a rousing game of "stop me if you've heard this before."
Its story is very generic. In a land formerly inhabited by a magical civilization, a dark alliance of a nobleman, a necromancer, and a general seek to awaken a long-imprisoned evil god. Their goal is to unseat the king and eventually dominate the world. Realistically, the story is a non-issue. Pretty much all of the Dungeon Explorer's enjoyment comes from fighting, so the lack of creativity is forgivable.
As anyone could guess from the title, in Dungeon Explorer you explore dungeons (in fact, this game sports one of the strangest "final boss" monologues out there, during which the embodiment of evil repeatedly refers to your character as "The Dungeon Explorer"). I suppose the game could be more aptly named if it were called "Go into caves, ruins, and other dark places in order to hit things with a weapon”, but that's the gameplay in a nutshell.
Your style of combat is based on your race and class, chosen at the beginning of the game. You can be an Oros (a race of mountain hunters and herders), Taratta (female travelers who have armor that doesn't seem to offer much protection), or Emporos (they get guns). Your class choices are the same regardless of race; you can be a hunter, warrior, or mage. However, the classes are armed differently depending on the race of the character. For example: an Oros hunter gets a bow, a Taratta hunter gets a boomerang, and an Emporos hunter gets a gun.
The game's combat sports a lot of the same mindless fun of other hack and slash titles. Press A: things die. It's simple, but by and large it works. There is a fair amount of magic (called "Arts") available to shake things up, and special attacks are executed by waiting for your attack gauge to charge. The other face buttons are mapped to items and spells. There is a lock-on system, but it seemingly does nothing; just because you're locked-on doesn't mean that your attack will hit, or that you're even facing the right direction. Still, combat is reasonably well-executed.
While the inventory management system is useful, the mapping isn't always perfect. It doesn't pause while you pick the item you want, and you can only set nine of any item at one time. If you use nine potions, even if you have fifty in reserve you still have to go into the menu and equip nine more. Menus also shun the touchscreen; while not a huge issue, it would have been useful when assigning items. It can be annoying moving from the D-Pad to the touchscreen, but players should have the option to switch between them nonetheless.
As you kill enemies you collect experience. With each level you are awarded stat points that you can assign to a stat of your choice. The game rewards you for assigning them correctly, and punishes you if you don’t. Putting all your points into vitality when you're a hunter makes the game practically impossible, whereas doing so for a warrior will lead to a powerful character.
In an attempt to differentiate itself from some of its hack-and-slash predecessors (or perhaps to make up for the fact that the main quest is only single-player), Dungeon Explorer introduces "robots" to serve as your backup. You can equip your robot with various upgrades, and eventually take it to a shrine in order to transform it into a more powerful form. The robot mechanic is somewhat unnecessary because your robotic buddies never seem to offer much in the way of help. Against regular enemies they generally just hover around and fire off shots into the darkness; when you do reach the boss, they tend to get themselves killed without offering much in the way of aid. I eventually stopped buying them and it didn't really seem to make a difference.
The graphics and art are ho-hum. Many of the monsters look the same; as per hack-and-slash tradition, a brown wolf is easy to kill but a green wolf means you're a dead man. The dungeons are all shades of gray, brown, and the occasional green and purple. The character models lack any real detail and the game's bosses lack the size or design to inspire dread.
The music could have been ripped from any other dungeon-crawler. What music there is tends to be good, but there aren't a whole lot of songs and many of them are short and loop endlessly. The sounds are pretty much as expected. The clanging of weapons, growling of monsters, and exploding of green wolves occurs throughout.
The shining light of Dungeon Explorer is its multiplayer, supporting Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection and single-cart multiplayer for up to three adventurers. However, the multiplayer component of the game isn't the main quest. Multiplayer takes place in a pyramid at the center of the game's town, and is essentially a "survival" dungeon. Broken up into five sets of five levels, beating the multiplayer dungeon is the only way to fully "win" the game. A big drawback is that it takes upwards of twenty minutes to get a party together via matchmaking, and even then you may not get two strong allies. It's also hard to work together when playing online, because communication is done via a set of pre-scripted words ("Follow", "Exit," "Yes," "Wow", etc.). Playing with two other buddies in person is a much more fulfilling experience.
Part of me likes Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts. It's a throwback to the early days of the hack-and-slash genre, and it does a fair job of updating the formula. Unfortunately, it lacks any real character. The multiplayer is nice and support for Wi-Fi Connection is appreciated, but it's often hard to find anyone online to play with. Single-cart is held back because it is impossible to get anywhere in the multiplayer dungeon without a character that has already beat the single player game. In order to put together a good party for single-cart multiplayer, you’ll literally have to beat the regular game three times over.
For fans of the Gauntlet franchise, Dungeon Explorer may be worth a shot. If you can find some people to play it with, you can have some fun with it. However, I doubt you'll want to play the game three times over in order to create a useful party for the multiplayer dungeon. For everyone else, Dungeon Explorer will be far too repetitive to hold interest, and even fans of the hack-and-slash genre will be bored by the lack of originality.